Module 1: What Is a Community?

Without even doing any research, you could probably develop a list of qualities that define “community”—shared resources; geographical proximity; similar values, customs, and beliefs; a common history and tradition, as well as a common language to communicate stories of the past; and collective interests or aspirations, to name a few. These traits, however accurate, are still somewhat simplistic, and not revelatory of the profoundly dynamic complexities and idiosyncrasies that characterize daily social interactions amongst individuals.

There has been much theoretical debate about how comprehensive a definition of “community” should be. Can a cul-de-sac be considered a community? A neighborhood? Town? City? County? Region? Nation? And how do the technological advances and modern processes of globalization affect how we associate with fellow human beings … even those who do not share our continent, customs, or culture? In Community Development as a Process, Lee J. Cary illustrates that defining more discrete boundaries around “the collective concerns of some residential population” is best accomplished by differentiating between “society” and “community.”(1) He defines the two terms as follows:

Society refers to the social space or context comprehensive of all the social activity of an area’s resident population, including its range of institutions and all social interactions.”

“Community is assumed to be simply a small-scale, local society … It is contained within society and is molded and conditioned by it, but it is a segment separately identifiable from society. Community is those parts of a resident society important to its unit or group concerns.”

For those involved in community mobilization and organizing, the term “community,” on the most foundational level, refers to the “unit of action, the arena for the process.” While the people who make up a community are generally linked via spatial relationship, Willis A. Sutton points out that considering what is “collective for” rather than “local to” a population is most important—a recognition acknowledging “that geography is operationally important rather than substantively distinctive.”(2)

Thus, the first role of any community development endeavor is to demarcate the community of emphasis. Beyond locational closeness, what binds a certain collection of individuals together? How has a certain group of people adapted societal mores to suit their community’s particular identity? Through investigation and interviewing, a clearer picture of the collective values and concerns that motivate local action, the patterns of interdependence and interface, will materialize.

Go To Module 2: Why Bottom Up Instead of Top Down? >>


(1) Cary, L. J. Community Development as a Process. (University of Missouri Press, 1989), 58-59.

(2) Ibid, 2.